Chester Missing is known as one of the country’s most exacting political analysts. He can soften up the toughest politician, but in 2014 he became the first puppet in history to be sued (by Steve Hofmeyr, who lost the case). Conrad Koch, the award-winning performer and the human voice behind the outspoken puppet, tells Nicolene de Wee what it’s like to share his life with Chester and how anthropology shaped his view of the world. In the same breath, Chester shares his views on Jacob Zuma’s incarceration and the 2021 elections
Conrad, you have a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Cape Town and a career as a puppeteer. Please share your journey with us and the reason for your career choice?
I studied anthropology in the 1990s when the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in full swing and it was a pivotal time to study anthropology. I grew up in the southern suburbs of Cape Town and went to one of the best schools, so that kind of “DA-ish” identity is something that I received. Through UCT I met people such as Albie Sachs and people who were tortured by the apartheid government. It gave me an understanding of what is fair and unfair in the world.
I was bullied quite a lot as a child and anthropology helped me to process the world, something I didn’t expect would happen. I finished my honours degree at UCT and at the time I was already a ventriloquist because I studied at the College of Magic in Cape Town. I liked the fact that it allowed me to be two people at the same time. It’s a very weird career path, because there’s no one who has done it before and we are really inventing it as we go along.
Did you always intend to go the political route with your comedy?
No. I guess I just ended up being good at writing those kinds of jokes. It’s also got to do with my identity. Pieter-Dirk Uys was, for example, one of the few comedians I was exposed to in South Africa and it was obvious that there was a need for a political conversation in the country. I don’t understand politics in terms of Jacob Zuma and the party-political world, I understand it from the sociopolitical world of race, class and gender dynamics. My political comedy is a bit lighter nowadays. Let’s call it a complex, two-directional approach.
How has Covid-19 affected your performances and career?
It has been difficult, but some of us opted to do virtual shows and although it’s not as profitable as live shows, it does help. I’ve got two shows coming up, one of which will be a global show. In the first one Chester wants to talk about race, but he says he can’t do it unless he knows whether I am racist [laughs]. In the whole show we unpack racism and the idea that it’s something we are not, so we talk about Marikana, the royal family and its dynamics and we ask whether colonialism is over in South Africa.
The second show is called Ramapuppet, which is full of fun and very accessible with very little hard politics. For example, we look at [President Cyril] Ramaphosa and his regulations and come to the conclusion that if we keep our Covid numbers low, we get to drink. So Ramaphosa is basically running the entire country on the old “dop system” [laughs]. Both shows will be open within the next few months on 25 September and 22 and 23 October in Cape Town.
Chester, any comments about the way the South African government is currently handling the Covid-19 pandemic?
My goodness, if they took any longer to get us those vaccines, they would have been the Post Office. We were waiting and waiting forever. I think Jacob Zuma will end up being tried for corruption before we end up being vaccinated. I mean, when are we going to find out what’s really going on? All that ever happens is Cyril Ramaphosa comes and does his TV show once a month. It’s not Netflix, it’s Net Cyril! And he doesn’t answer any questions. The only episode I found entertaining is when his mask attacked him and it was all over his face, like one-man load-shedding.
Chester, what is your view on the protests that are happening in the country under the pro-Jacob Zuma banner?
Well it turns out Zuma was not looting the state, he was just protesting for 20 years. He should definitely stay behind bars. I question the motives of his supporters … I mean in KwaZulu-Natal, if you get a parking ticket, do you set a trolley on fire? I’m just wondering how the justice system works in KZN. I’ve been locked in a suitcase for years against my will and nobody has burnt a single truck.
Do you have any advice for South Africans who’ll be heading to the polls next year to vote in the local government elections?
Before you vote, ask yourself whether you would support anyone who has a Carl Niehaus and Helen Zille in their camp? Have you seen Carl Niehaus? He’s like a Leon Schuster of politics. And I would never be Helen’s best friend, ever. She came to my show and I appreciate that, but then she went and wrote articles on News24 where she explained Zulu people to us and I thought, well that is South Africa for you! Naspers, apartheid’s communication system, got an old, white lady to explain Zulu people to everyone else. How does that even make sense?
Conrad, much has been said about the state of the country’s entertainment industry over the past few months, specifically after the loss of so many iconic performers. Do you think more could be done to help struggling artists?
My wife is an artist [musician and actor] and seeing what a woman of colour goes through in the performing arts in Cape Town is profoundly frustrating. It’s deeply unjust what she has to go through. The problems are layered by race, class and gender.
I don’t think the state has given the support we need. But at the same time there are people living in plastic bags on the N2. Recently the government built a gym in a park in Gardens while kids are starving in the streets. Art and comedy in South Africa is generally a middle-class thing and at the moment everyone is struggling.
Conrad, what do you and your wife do to relax and does Chester allow you to spend quality time?
Chester reads a lot and always stays on top of the news, so that keeps him busy. We normally drive each other nuts so he spends a lot of time in his suitcase [laughs]. He has no social life, except that time when he claimed to have a consensual relationship with four Barbie dolls, but I think Covid has made it harder for him to get out.
My wife and Chester are quite good friends, but because he is a loud and a rude little man, I think she’s had enough of him now.